Master Of The Horn
Genius, player, teacher, jester—Dizzy Gillespie was all that jazz.
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It was in the 1970s that cigars became a serious pursuit for Dizzy. Lorraine Gillespie describes his initiation: "A fellow named Whitey used to collect clothes for recently arrived immigrants and his uncle had a cigar store. Dizzy gave him the clothes, and Whitey gave him a couple of boxes of expensive Cuban cigars," Lorraine recalls with a precious laugh. Gillespie now had a use for all the fine clothes that he'd bought around the world.
My own introduction to Gillespie involved a smoke. I saw the cigar before I ever saw Diz, and whatever it was, it was big. It was 1981, and I was an assistant stage manager for George Wein's Kool Jazz Festival. Diz was pissed as he entered the theater, but I didn't know it, and in my best tremolo I said, "Hello, Mr. Gillespie." He cut me cold. I never found out why he'd been angry, but somewhere along the way as our relationship progressed he became my friend, daddy and granddaddy all wrapped in one. Neither was I the only one who felt this way. On more than one occasion, as we'd walked through Times Square, people would yell, "Dizzy Gillespie. Is that you?" The Diz would smile and puff those cheeks, and that would be it. The folks would come running over. It was always a groove.
As Dizzy's road manager, I traveled all over Europe and Japan with him. I was with him on his second trip to Cuba in 1986, and, of course, I fell in love with cigars. John Lee turned me onto them while we were hanging out in a nightclub at the bottom of the Hotel Nacional in Havana. I saw the beautiful shape and smelled the gorgeous aroma. "Man, what is that?" I asked. "Call the waiter. He'll get you one," Lee said. The rest is sweet, smoky history.
Curiously, in his later years, I learned that the magnificent Dizzy Gillespie no longer liked making records. He found the recording environment claustrophobic. As he told me, "When I started out, the cat put a microphone in front of us and said, 'Play.' " By the 1980s, retakes and the overdub had robbed the exercise of its spontaneity. Diz wanted it to be hit and split, and he could come up with all manner of excuses for not showing up. Dizzy would say, "My lips hurt" or "I'll be there in an hour" and never show. When I sent a driver for him, he would send him away after telling the man, "Dizzy don't live here." I called more than one driver a liar before I figured out what Diz was up to. The next session he'd show up looking all angelic. He was a trip, and I loved him.
When the great John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie passed away on Jan. 6, 1993, of pancreatic cancer, those of us who knew him mourned his death on many different levels. We lost not only a great talent but a huge heart. Wynton Marsalis recalls, "Dizzy Gillespie was a genius who reinvented the way we play the trumpet." But he confessed that it wasn't as a trumpeter that Gillespie had most affected him. "He loved music, and not just his involvement in it," Marsalis adds, "and was always very encouraging to Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, John Faddis. He encouraged me tremendously. And he left a good taste in the mouths of the audience. He never forgot he was playing for the people."
Alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe says, "He always made me feel like he respected me. Even with his enormity, he never made me feel like he was looking down on me."
"He was a pioneer," said drummer Tony Williams, who passed away in February, a Saint Luis Rey, Hoyo de Monterrey and Cohiba smoker who played with Dizzy and Davis.
James Moody, who was at Dizzy's bedside when he died, says, "Everywhere I went for the first time, I went with Dizzy. Dizzy's impact is still there, although people might not realize it. Even now, I'll hear something and say to myself, 'Hmm, that's what he meant.' Not a day goes by that I don't miss him."
Dizzy ended his autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop, by saying, "The highest role is the role in service to humanity, and if I can make that, then I'll be happy. When I breathe the last time, it'll be a happy breath."
Rest easy, Diz. You're cool.
Producer, manager and writer T. Brooks Shepard lives in New York City.